The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild brings many changes to the franchise. The dark themes of the game, while not exactly a change, certainly stand out. Ruins are everywhere and people are relegated to small settlements. Overlooking these settlements and ruins are shrines. Deep inside these strange relics of technology long lost, past lethal trials and puzzles, you will find a strange sight for the Legend of Zelda: mummies.
Well, they aren’t exactly strange. Mummies appear throughout the series, but these mummies are strange because they aren’t enemies–they are failed protectors. You’ll find them enshrined behind a barrier and wearing the garb of Sheikah clerics. As a reward for clearing the trials, they offer you a spirit orb, the manifestation of their spiritual power. What’s more, you’ll see these mummies wait in various meditative poses straight out of Buddhist texts. It’s unusual for the Legend of Zelda to show such distinct religious elements. You’ll see hints, like the shield emblem from the original Legend of Zelda, but you don’t usually see a distinct religious practice. The mummies you see are based on reality: sokushinbutsu.
Those Who Want to Die for Others
A Chinese sokushinbutsu believed to be Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100 Image Source
Sokushinbutsu or “Buddhas in Their Very Body” aren’t considered mummies by their worshipers. Mummies are made by preserving the body after death, but these monks aren’t considered dead by followers. Rather, their spirits are preserved in their bodies in a state of deep meditation (Clements, 2016).
Would-be sokushinbutsu follow a path set by the founder of the Shingon tradition, Kukai. He believed it was possible to attain Buddhahood in the believer’s current body instead of some future incarnation as other schools believe. For his part, Kukai is said to be eternally meditating somewhere at Mt. Koya. In fact, the tradition closely associates with mountains including Mt. Yudono, Mt. Haguro, and Mt. Gassan. The belief led monks to practice harsh austerities such as fasting and reciting sutras under icy waterfalls and, for some, self-mummification.
Why would anyone want to mummify themselves? Well, it’s believed sokushinbutsu have a strong motivation to help people in need. They freely offer their powers to save people from problems that range from starvation to taxes. Sokushinbutsu are rare, which adds to their mystique and powers. About 21 sokushinbutsu are found in Northern Japan, and we know of 9 more from historical records. The oldest dates to 1683 and the most recent dates to 1903. This monk was enshrined only after World War II (Clements, 2016). The desire to help people in their suffering drove a few men (only men can become sokushinbutsu) to undergo the process.
Sokushinbutsu are found in China as well. A Chinese Buddhist statue contains the remains believed to be of Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100. We don’t know for certain if he mummified himself, but researchers suspect he went through the process. According to Vincent van Vilsteren, a museum curator (Winter, 2015; Self-made Mummy, 2015):
“We suspect that for the first 200 years, the mummy was exposed and worshiped in a Buddhist temple in China. Only in the 14th century did they do all the work to transform it into a nice statue.”
How to Mummify Yourself
Back in Japan, the self-mummification process builds from the already ascetic diet of Shingon monks. Monks who want to become sokushinbutsu observed a strict diet that forbids meat, alcohol, rice, wheat, soybeans, adzuki beans, black sesame seeds, barnyard grass (maybe backyard grass is okay?), millet, foxtail millet, buckwheat, and corn. They usually ate nuts, roots, and pine bark. The diet made sure the monk didn’t have body fat to decay. Some monks ate bark and sap from the tree used to make lacquer.
They would also seclude themselves in the mountain in 1,000 day intervals. Some for as long as 4,000 days or just shy of 11 years. Cold winters and daily cold water meditation practices combined with being forbidden to seek medical help killed many would-be sokushinbutsu before they could reach their goals. After this period ended, they would start the mummification process–such as drinking tea poisonous enough to deter maggots (Winters, 2015). The process ended with being buried alive with only a tube to allow them to breath. They would then meditate until starvation claimed them.
Then, 3 years and 3 months later, people exhumed the new sokushinbutsu, dressed him in clerical robes, and enshrined him. The Shingon tradition believes these monks will remain in deep mediation until Maitreya, the Future Buddha, descends from Tusita Heaven in the distant future (Clements, 2016). Maitreya is thought to come after the dharma (the path to compassion/enlightenment) is forgotten in the future and succeed Śākyamuni as the Buddha (the current Buddha).
Failure and Loneliness in Breath of the Wild
The mummies we find in Breath of the Wild‘s shrines pull from this tradition. These monks went into the shrines to meditate and await the coming of the Hero, becoming sokushinbutsu in the process. Tragically, they could do nothing to protect the people outside the shrines from the destruction that befell them. Throughout Breath of the Wild, you’ll see people seeking out the shrines–some looking for blessings or help. But the eternals inside could do nothing.
Now, I’ve seen people complain about how empty the world of Breath of the Wild is (it is mostly wilderness, after all). But the landscape acts as a storytelling method. That emptiness, the loneliness, speaks to the destruction and suffering that happened. The shrines housing the powerless sokushinbutsu add to this story. Throughout the game, you encounter people who have accepted their helplessness and the brutal life they live. You see people attacked outside the shrines and scattered settlements. Breath of the Wild reveals what happens when heroes fail.
The use of sokushinbutsu speaks of the level of desperation and fear within Breath of the Wild. Over 120 people willingly mummified themselves in order to await the hero. That means far more failed in the attempt and died in the process. What’s more, they did this 10,000 years before events in Breath of the Wild. Yet, in the end their sacrifice turned out to be in vain. When Ganon arrived, they could do nothing to stop him from murdering the populace.
The theme of loneliness runs deep through Breath of the Wild. The story even centers on on it, and how the hero can’t succeed alone. Sokushinbutsu, like many of the other design choices you see throughout the game, emphasizes this theme.
Clements, F. W. (2016). The Buddhas of Mount Yudono: Sacred Self-Mummification in Northern Japan. Expedition, 58(2), 30-34.
Recently, I’ve read a memoir written by Stacy Gleiss that shares her experiences with an abusive Japanese husband and her immersion into Japanese culture. I’ve considered doing a standard book review, but it’s difficult to critique a memoir. By their nature, memoirs share intimate details about a person’s life that I don’t feel right critiquing. However, The Six-Foot Bonsai touches on a darker experience of Japanese culture and media. Gleiss’s experience, shaped by an abusive relationship and her obsession for all things Japanese, brings up topics young otaku fail to consider.
I’ve ran into people who show the same obsessive interest Gleiss writes about in her book. In fact, those people drove me to start JP in the first place. I wanted to speak out against misplaced views about Japanese culture. Through my research, I’ve come to admire some aspects of the culture and dislike other aspects. To my neighbors, I’ve become something of a Japanophile, but my first interest was the Roman Empire (particularly the founding and collapse of Rome) and early Christian history. I own more books on those topics than on Japan, which is saying something. So in many regards, I struggle to understand the extreme love for Japan Gleiss writes about and otaku share. I find Japan fascinating but no more fascinating than the Roman Empire. I tell you this so you can understand that I am lack first-hand experience in culture obsession. Gleiss’s book serves as a better source. If you are obsessed with Japan (that is, it dominates your thinking and how you behave), you need to read her book.
With these caveats out of the way, let’s start with my impressions of the book and then lead into cultural obsession and kawaii culture. While I practice Zen, I stand in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It’s through these lens that I view everything. I grew up in a particularly hardcore legalistic branch of Christianity, and its precepts are still written on my bones, despite knowing how wrong many of them are. Much of what Gleiss accounts with her life troubled my sensibilities. I also struggled to understand how her all-consuming interest in Japan could drive her to drop everything and transplant into the culture. I have an interest in living in Japan as well, but it would be as a Westerner who is respectful of Japanese practices and with an interest to study their history and folklore rather than trying to become Japanese. The West can learn many lessons from Japanese culture, but in the end, a person born and raised in the West can only adopt another culture so far. Cultures can only be judged in relation to each other, and the person considering the culture needs to have a broad and firm frame of reference. For example, I’ve studied Japanese culture, Persian/Babylonian culture, Hellenistic culture, Roman culture, ancient Hebrew culture, ancient Egyptian culture, and I grew up in rural American Judaeo-Christian culture. Gleiss writes about the importance of cultural comparison as a means to keep perspective:
When I first experienced Japan, I thought this intriguing culture held the secrets to a good life: order, process, and an almost artistic approach to everything. But my blind faith in this culture was sorely misplaced. In fact, placing trust in any culture is risky without a set of standards by which to measure the moral rectitude of any given custom.
In my case, my Judaeo-Christian background with a traditional rural American upbringing serves as my set of standards (with added standards from cultures I’ve studied). In many cases, I’ve observed my otaku friends pursue an interest in Japanese culture as a way to rebel against American individualism. While American individualism is toxic in its present rendition, turning toward a mistaken idea of Japanese culture can be more poisonous because the idea isn’t complete. Rather, it is an idealization. Now, idealizing a culture can be useful. My childhood idealization of the Roman Empire drove me to learn more, including the darker side of Rome–slavery, rape, disease, incest. However, for many, the echo-chamber of the internet prevents them from going past the sections of a culture they enjoy: otaku culture in particular.
Speaking of dark aspects of culture, as Gleiss’s book illustrates, Japan has a problem with objectifying young girls. American culture worships the idol of youth, but Japan takes it to the extreme. Long time readers know that I loathe fan-service. I’ve also explained the origins of lolita culture and kawaii culture. In Gleiss’s life, she explains how lolita and kawaii culture shaped her abusive ex-husband’s views of sexuality and women. The access to prepubescent sexualized media–the upskirt shots and other sexual poses manga and anime peddle–encouraged his pedophile tendencies. Buddhism and Christianity warn that the messages we consume shape our thinking. Consuming prepubescent sexualized manga–okay, let’s not dodge the word anymore: child pornography–will shape a person’s view of sexuality.
Child Pornography in Japan
Back in the 1990s, Japan’s child pornography industry flourished. In 1997, Christian Science Monitor wrote:
The child pornography that Japanese officials consider legal falls into two categories. The first features pictures of children in public places photographed with hidden cameras or powerful lenses. This “peeping” material does involve Japanese children, but is not considered a violation of the child-welfare law since the photographers are not “inducing” children to practice “obscene acts,” which the law prohibits.
A second type presents posed pictures of children, very often naked. Most of the children involved are girls from Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe, according to three men who work in the pornography industry. In keeping with the industry’s self-imposed guidelines for pornography involving children under 18, no genitals or sexual activity is shown.
Part of the reason why it flourished in the 1990s was because of obscenity laws that banned displays of pubic hair, creating a loophole for images of prepubescent children. In 2015, the Japanese government banned the private ownership of obscene products involving both male and female children under the age of 18, but the law did little to curb the distribution of such material (Osaki, 2015). I’m sure you’ve seen anime or read manga that featured far-too-young children depicted in voyeuristic poses. These types of poses are so common to the media that they have become expected tropes. Adult women are shown flashing their assets along with teens and pre-teens in mainstream titles. Just look at No-Game; No-Life as one example. Dance in the Vampire Bund is another title that thinly veils this problem by stating that Mina Țepeș is far older than she looks and has an adult form. But that doesn’t stop the anime from objectifying her prepubescent body.
I debated an entire day about whether or not to use this picture. I don’t want to be seen as supporting what amounts to child pornography, but I also wanted to provide an example for discussion. Shiro is 11 years old. There’s no way to call this illustration anything but sexual. Her pose and lack of clothing showcases her budding prepubescent breasts and her lack of hips. This is what sexualization of children in manga and anime looks like. Kawaii culture sees such depictions as normal and even innocently cute. If it was innocent, the illustration wouldn’t depict her in such an outfit and angle. This illustration isn’t out of the ordinary for manga and anime, sadly. While I debated about this image, fans often think nothing of such illustrations.
These types of fan-service are so common that few think much of it. Rei Ayanami, from Neon Genesis Evangelion, is perhaps one of the most fetishized characters. She’s 14, well below the allowable age to have sex according to Japan’s Children Welfare Act (which forbids sex for anyone under the age of 18) but above the age of consent established in the Japanese Penal Code (which is only 13). As you can see, even the law is ambiguous. In the United States, she still falls under child pornography laws, however. In any case, Rei and other characters have become so fetishized that it’s considered a normal part of being an anime/manga fan. Some fans even claim her as a waifu. In fact, relationships with fictitious teen and prepubescent characters are fairly common in the otaku fandom. The confusion surrounding the enforcement of obscenity laws (and how they clash with free expression) contribute to this normalization.
One of the issues surrounding enforcement of Japan’s obscenity laws deals with kawaii culture. Characters may be 20, but look 15. Lobbyists for the Japan Cartoonist Association resist an outright ban on the content (Ripley, 2014):
Ken Akamatsu, who lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the Japan Cartoonists Association, said a total ban on explicit content would damage the entire industry, making creators too scared to put pen to paper in case they risked breaking the rules.
He said the characters were imaginary, so unlike real child porn, no one was hurt.
“Actual children suffering and crying is not acceptable. But manga doesn’t involve actual children. So there are no actual victims,” he said.
Gleiss’s ex-husband echoes this reasoning. In the book, she accounts how her ex-husband claimed to separate reality from fantasy. Many people claim fiction doesn’t affect behavior; however, for most of human history fiction–myths and folklore–taught morals, values, and cultural viewpoints. While some claim fiction lacks victims, the victims are the readers. Their consumption distorts their idea of reality. It does it gradually, in ways that evade notice. In turn, this can shape sexuality and make it difficult to bond with people on an intimate level. Yes, some claim to be unaffected and have happy and healthy relationships. As with everything, fictional relationships and interests can benefit people and their relationships. Obsessive behavior falls outside of these possible benefits.
Incest in Japanese Culture
While Suguha and Kazuto aren’t brother and sister by blood, they were raised that way. This makes Suguha’s romantic affection for him as akin to incest.
Related to child pornography is Japan’s long history of incest. Shinto mythology features incestuous relationships between deities. A region of Honshu has special terms for different types of incest:
hiemaki refers to mother-in-law/son-in-law
awamaki for father-in-law/daughter-in-law
imonoko for father daughter.
This suggests these types of incest were common enough to warrant naming (Kitahara, 1989a). Shinto rituals that purified sins also named forms of incest. This further suggestions a commonality. According to Kitahara (1989a), the practice of co-sleeping and co-bathing may have contributed to historical cases of incest. Kitahara (1989b) examines a book outlining cases of mother-son incest where the mother helps relieve her son’s stress by helping him masturbate or even having sex with him. Kitahara (1989b) writes:
According to a 20-year-old male, when he was 14 and bathing with is mother, he inadvertently experienced erection. The other said: “It is better to discharge it,” and she petted him to ejaculate. They were having coitus since he was 16. Apparently some mothers behave similarly toward their sons, who typically express their reactions by saying “mother helped me to ejaculate” and this usually takes place in the bathroom.
Francis Pike confirms this was a lingering problem in 1997’s article in London magazine The Spectator.
In her book, Gleiss makes no mention of such happening with her ex-husband; however, the awareness of incest through literature and, perhaps through rare events as Kitahara examines, creates a framework that allows him to normalize such behavior. Manga and anime contributes to this as well. Brother-sister relationships have become rather common in recent years. No Game; No Life serves as an example, as does Sword Art Online. All of this points to an undercurrent of incest in Japanese cultural history. Over the last few decades, as Japanese birthrates decrease, researchers have pointed to how men have a mother complex. Back in 1993, Satoru Saito doubted mother-son incest was common, but the relationship between mother and son still defined Japanese society (Mccarthy, 1993):
‘There is no clear distinction between male-female relations and mother- son relations,’ says Dr. Saito. ‘Japanese males are always mixing these two: they want to assert their sexuality, but at the same time they want to be held by their mothers – warm, safe, secure.’
Today, as you can see in this article about dating, people still struggle with this issue. It results in unequal sharing of household work and general inequality in marriage. Again, this ties back into child pornography. Men from households with extreme nurturing–regardless of the sexual elements involved or not involved–struggle to develop adult viewpoints, so it would only be natural for them to develop affection for cute, innocent, and available portrayals of girls and women as media culture pushes.
Obsession and Fault Blinders
Mina from Dance in the Vampire Bund has far too much sexuality for her child form. The show made me uncomfortable throughout.
Cultural obsessions blind people to the culture’s faults, such as Japan’s child pornography and, to a lesser extent, incest. Gleiss’s book shows how a personal obsession can do this, but obsession can also blind a fandom. The normalization of fan-service and soft incest within anime and manga attest to this fact. Sadly, anime with such content sells. Some people argue that fan-service and lolicon are protected under free speech. While this is true, they shouldn’t be normalized. There’s a difference between protecting and normalizing certain types of expression. Yes, such expressions can be useful; they can raise awareness of the problem and–I’m going to stretch here–provide an outlet for people. But consumption of such messages affects how reality is understood. This is why you see some otaku encroach on women.
So far I’ve singled out men, but women suffer from the same issues. However, society places less focus on these issues. There is a double standard when it comes to unwanted sexual advances toward men. A female otaku grabbing a man at a convention doesn’t face the same backlash as a man doing the same to her. But setting that aside, I focused on men because most anime/manga objectify women more often than men. As a male, I expect my fellow men to behave as gentlemen. Check out the blog Art of Manliness if you want to see what I mean.
Gleiss’s book The Six-Foot Bonsai brings up all of these issues and speaks about Japan’s focus on youthfulness and cuteness in the context of her own life. Her book serves as a warning for those who are obsessed with Japanese culture and unable to see the culture’s negatives, and every culture has its darker side.
Now there are some who are obsessed with anime and manga but have little interest in Japanese culture. They just like the stories and the characters. However, obsession of any sort is an issue. Obsessions lack balance and leave a person with a one-dimensional life. You might know of a religious person who does nothing but speak about God and Jesus or Allah. In many cases, these obsessions are based on misconceived ideas and a lack of true understanding about the target of the obsession. They are obsessed with the idea rather than the reality, often in order to escape reality. Eventually, reality will prick the bubble and the shock of it will leave people unable to function. Gleiss suggests she struggled with this problem when her bubble finally burst.
The Long and Short
I want anime and manga to stop with the fan-service and ecchi and soft incest. I want them to focus less on tropes and more on good writing, and anime can do that. Animations have the ability to tell stories live action cannot. But I’m not naive. This will continue until Western and Japanese fans pressure the companies by not purchasing such content. It’s past time for anime and manga to stop with prepubescent sexualization.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any issues with adult nudity. I used to draw and paint classical nudes back when I studied animation and art in college. The difference is intent. Classical art nudes seek to show the beauty of the human body or tell a story about the person. Sexual poses as we see in anime and throughout online art websites intend to arouse. They are not art because they don’t tell a story. Even child nudity can be used to drive home a point, such as the famous photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she tried to run away from the napalm that burned her during the Vietnam War. But sexualization is a different matter entirely.
If you are obsessed with Japan and/or anime and manga or even video games, you need to reevaluate how it influences your life. Is is a way to escape something that troubles you? In small amounts this is okay, but if there is a problem you need to face it and make corrections if you can. If you can’t you should learn to accept the way reality is rather than avoid it. Everything ends, so even what seems forever will change.
Develop different interests. If you are an extreme otaku, develop interests apart from anime and manga. Take up a creative hobby aside from drawing your favorite characters or writing about them. Diversify.
If you are like Gleiss, you may have to abstain from Japanese culture altogether. She writes about using Japanese culture like it’s a drug. It’s okay to be interested in another culture. It’s different if you are consumed by it. Throughout Gleiss’s book, she write candidly about this consuming influence, which is why I recommend you read her memoir if you too suffer from cultural addiction.
Barr, C. W. (1997, April 2). Why Japan plays host to world’s largest child pornography… (Cover story). Christian Science Monitor. p. 1.
Kitahara, Michio (1989a). “Childhood in Japanese Culture”. The Journal of psychohistory (0145-3378), 17 (1), p. 43.
Kiatahara, Michio (1989b). “Incest- Japanese Style.” The Journal of psychohistory. 16 (4), p. 445.
Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home
Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644 in the town of Ueno to a minor samurai family. While he is best known for his haiku in the West, his travel journals broke ground in Japanese literature. In his teen years, Bashō entered the service of Todo Yoshikiyo, who was also a poet. According to traditional accounts of his life, Bashō worked as part of the kitchen’s staff before being introduced to Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705), one of the best poets of Kyoto at the time. Through Kigin, Bashō was able to become a professional poet and move to Edo (Carter, 1997). He began as a haikai poet. A haikai is a type of poem made of linked verses (Norman, 2008). Bashō went by many names before settling on the one we know: Kiginsaku, Toshichiro, Tadaemon, Jinshichiro, and Munefusa. His first haiku was published under the name of Tosei, which translates to “green peach.” The name pays homage to Bashō’s favorite Chinese poet Li Po (or “white plum”) (Norman, 2008). Bashō wrote over 1,000 haikus in his lifetime. Unlike other poets of his time, Bashō focused on the everyday moments. He tried to capture the moment a bird took wing or a frog jumped (Biallas, 2002). He never claimed there was a single way to write good haiku. Instead, he argued a good poem came from a flash of insight and jotting it down immediately (Heyd, 2003).
Let me digress a moment. Haiku is a 19th century contraction of hokku no haikai. A haiku is a 3 line poem that follows a specific pattern of ji-on, or symbol-sounds. Ji-on are made up of a single vowel or a consonant + vowel. Haiku lines follow this pattern: 5-7-5. Let’s look at an example from Bashō.
The man next door, what
does he do for a living?
aki fukaki tonari wa nani o suru hito zo
I highlighted every symbol-sound to help you see how the 5-7-5 rule works. Haiku doesn’t try to rhyme. It focuses on the symbol-sound pattern and its imagery. Haiku often use a word or expression (called a ki-go) to pin down the time of the year. This sets the mood of the poem. Autumn, for example, has a lonely feeling. Ki-go act as shorthand to convey feelings, ideas, or meaning in as few words as possible….if you understand what feelings, ideas, or meanings are associated with the ki-go. Weather conditions and animals can act as ki-go. Weather conditions and animals have strong associations with certain seasons. Such as rain showers and spring here in the United States. Before Bashō, haikai poetry fixed on the tastes of the courtly elite or funny topics that appealed to the merchant class. Bashō’s poetry focused on common, everyday experience. Basho defined what we know of as haiku.
In 1680, Bashō gave up his practice in a way that amounts of professional suicide. He gave up his professional status and moved outside of Edo. He wrote this poem the same year:
On a bare branch
A crow has settled down to roost.
In autumn dusk.
His students followed him and built him a home. They also gave him basho trees (a type of banana). He began writing under that name, and it stuck with him: Basho. During this time, he studied Zen but struggled with spiritual beliefs. In 1682, his house was caught in the fire that burned most of Edo (Norman, 2008). He mourned the event:
Tired of cherry,
Tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
And black rice.
Part of the reason he moved was to avoid his fame, but people still followed and pestered him. He had to resort to locking his gate to escape. Of course, he wrote about it:
Only for morning glories I open my door—During the daytime I keep it tightly barred.
Despite people calling him a master poet, Basho felt dissatisfied with his writing. Many times he wanted to give it up altogether. He called his writing “mere drunken chatter, the incoherent babbling of a dreamer” (Biallas, 2002). His discontent seemed to be one reason why he decided to take to the road starting in 1684. His first journal, Journal of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, captures the difficulty of travel at the time. That hardship becomes a reoccurring theme in his later journals. He traveled several times between 1687-1688 and wrote about the experiences in Kashima Journal and Manuscript in a Knapsack. The journals combined prose and haiku, a combination called haibun (Heyd, 2003; Norman, 2008). He often focused on little things he observed while on the road:
Piercing the rock
The cicada’s song.
It is hard to us to imagine the difficulty of travel at the time. People traveled on foot with few rest stops and exposure to wind, rain and lice. Bashō even wrote about the trouble lice caused him: “Shed of everything else, I still have some lice I picked up on the road—Crawling on my summer robes.” He wrote about how rice-planting songs were a part of poetic tradition and wrote about the refinement of people found in rural villages. At the time, only those who lived in cities and belonged to the upper classes were thought of as refined. Equating country farm songs with samurai class poetry was also a break in the thinking of that time.
In his mid-40s, Basho grew tired of his fame. Despite his frail health, he decided on taking a pilgrimage to locations important to Japanese religious, literary, and military history. In May 1689, he set out with his friend Sora, a backpack, writing materials, and a few changes of clothes. We walked for 5 months, during which he penned his masterpiece, Narrow Road to a Far Province. The book spoke of a spiritual journey while Basho made his living on the road as a teacher (Carter, 1997). The entire journey involved walking 1,200 miles through some of the roughest terrain of Japan. Some of the roads were little more than trails.
The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
Last year I spent wandering along the coast. In autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs. Gradually the year drew to its close. When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the Barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all deprived me of my senses. The guardian spirits of the road beckoned, and I could not settle down to work.
I patched my torn trousers and changed the cord on my bamboo hat. To strengthen my legs for the journey I had moxa burned on my shins. By then I could think of nothing but the moon at Matsushima. When I sold my cottage and moved to Sampû’s villa, to stay until I started on my journey, I hung this poem on a post in my hut:
kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie
Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.
This is the introduction to Narrow Road (Keene, 1996). Moxa was a medical treatment of ground mugwort used to treat or prevent various diseases. Notice how he combines prose with haiku. The next excerpt has Bashō visiting a castle.
The three generations of glory of the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi vanished in the space of a dream. The ruins of their Great Gate are two miles this side of the castle; where once Hidehira’s mansion stood are now fields, and only the golden cockerel Mountain remains as in former days.
We first climbed up to Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitagami, a large river that flows down from the north. Here Yoshitsune once fortified himself with some picked retainers, but his great glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass. “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain. When spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.” These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me. There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.
His travel journals read a little like modern day travel guides. Bashō visited major military, literary, and religious landmarks. The bits of history help give a context.
Bashō died in 1694. He remains one of the most important poets in Japanese history, and his work are the first school children learn. His travel journals inspire pilgrimages in an effort to reconnect with a literary tradition. Many anime like Samurai Champloo pull inspiration from a travel tradition Bashō made famous. He wasn’t the first traveling poet, but he stands as one of the best loved. The calligrapher Soryu wrote this epilogue in the Narrow Road:
Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey, and then again content to sit imagining those rare sights. What a hoard of feelings, Kojin jewels, has his brush depicted! Such a journey! Such a man!
Biallas, L (2002) Merton and Basho: The Narrow Road Home. Merton Annual. 15 77.
Carter, S. (1997) On a Bare Branch: Basho and the Haikai Profession. American Oriental Society. 117 (1). 57-69.
Heyd, T. (2003) Basho and the Aesthetics of Wandering: Recuperating Space, Recognizing Place, and Following the Ways of the Universe. Philosophy East and West. 53 (3) 291-307.
Keene, D. (1996) The Narrow Road to Oku.
Norman, H. (2008) On the Poet’s Path. National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/02/bashos-trail/howard-norman-text
About one thousand years ago (but according to the dates of the story 744 years ago) the temple of “San-jn-san-gen Do” was founded. That was in 1132. ‘San-ju-san-gen Do”means hall of thirty-three spaces; and there are said to be over 33,333 figures of the Goddess Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in the temple to-day. Before the temple was built, in a village near by stood a willow tree of great size. It marked the playing-ground of all the village children, who swung on its branches, and climbed on its limbs. It afforded shade to the aged in the heat of summer, and in the evenings, when work was done, many were the village lads and lasses who vowed eternal love under its branches. The tree seemed an influence for good to all. Even the weary traveler could sleep peacefully and almost dry under its branches. Alas, even in those times men were often ruthless with regard to trees. One day the villagers announced an intention to cut it down and use it to build a bridge across the river.
There lived in the village a young farmer named Heitaro, a great favorite, who had lived near the old tree all his days, as his forefathers had done ; and he was greatly against cutting it down.
Such a tree should be respected, thought he. Had it not braved the storms of hundreds of years ? In the heat of summer what pleasure it afforded the children ! Did it not give to the weary shelter, and to the love-smitten a sense of romance ? All these thoughts Heitaro impressed upon the villagers. Sooner than approve your cutting it down/ he said, “I will give you as many of my own trees as you require to build the bridge. You must leave this dear old willow alone for ever/
The villagers readily agreed. They also had a secret veneration for the old tree.
Heitaro was delighted, and readily found wood with which to build the bridge.
Some days later Heitaro, returning from his work, found standing by the willow a beautiful girl.
Instinctively he bowed to her. She returned the bow. They spoke together of the tree, its age and beauty. They seemed, in fact, to be drawn towards each other by a common sympathy. Heitaro was sorry when she said that she must be going, and bade him good-day. That evening his mind was far from being fixed on the ordinary things of life. “Who was the lady under the willow tree ? How I wish I could see her again!’“thought he. There was no sleep for Heitaro that night. He had caught the fever of love.
Next day he was at his work early ; and he remained at it all day, working doubly hard, so as to try and forget the lady of the willow tree ; but on his way home in the evening, behold, there was the lady again ! This time she came forward to greet him in the most friendly way.
“Welcome, good friend !”she said. “Come and rest under the branches of the willow you love so well, for you must be tired.”
Heitaro readily accepted this invitation, and not only did he rest, but also he declared his love.
Day by day after this the mysterious girl (whom no others had seen) used to meet Heitaro, and at last she promised to marry him if he asked no questions as to her parents or friends. “I have none,” she said. “I can only promise to be a good and faithful wife, and tell you that I love you with all my heart and soul. Call me, then, ” Higo,” J and I will be your wife.”
Next day Heitaro took Higo to his house, and they were married. A son was born to them in a little less than a year, and became their absorbing joy. There was not a moment of their spare time in which either Heitaro or his wife was not playing with the child, whom they called Chiyodo. It is doubtful if a more happy home could have been found in all Japan than the house of Heitaro, with his good wife Higo and their beautiful child.
Alas, where in this world has complete happiness ever been known to last ? Even did the gods permit this, the laws of man would not.
When Chiyodo had reached the age of five years— the most beautiful boy in the neighbourhood—the ex-Emperor Toba decided to build in Kyoto an immense temple to Kwannon. He would contribute 1001 images of the Goddess of Mercy.
The ex-Emperor Toba’s wish having become known, orders were given by the authorities to collect timber for the building of the vast temple ; and so it came to pass that the days of the big willow tree were numbered, for it would be wanted, with many others, to form the roof.
Heitaro tried to save the tree again by offering every other he had on his land for nothing, but that was in vain. Even the villagers became anxious to see their willow tree built into the temple. It would bring them good luck, they thought, and in any case be a handsome gift of theirs towards the great temple.
The fatal time arrived. One night, when Heitaro and his wife and child had retired to rest and were sleeping, Heitaro was awakened by the sound of axes chopping. To his astonishment, he found his beloved wife sitting up in her bed, gazing earnestly at him, while tears rolled down her cheeks and she was sobbing bitterly.
“My dearest husband,”she said with choking voice, “ pray listen to what I tell you now, and do not doubt me. This is, unhappily, not a dream. When we married I begged you not to ask me my history, and you have never done so, but I said I would tell you some day if there should be a real occasion to do so. Unhappily, that occasion has now arrived, my dear husband. I am no less a thing than the spirit of the willow tree you loved, and so generously saved six years ago. It was to repay you for this great kindness that I appeared to you in human form under the tree, hoping that I could live with you and make you happy for your whole life. Alas, it cannot be! They are cutting down the willow. How I feel every stroke of their axes! I must return to die, for I am part of it. My heart breaks to think also of leaving my darling child Chiyodo and of his great sorrow when he knows that his mother is no longer in the world. Comfort him, dearest husband! He is old enough and strong enough to be with you now without a mother and yet not suffer. I wish you both long lives of prosperity. Farewell, my dearest ! I must be off to the willow, for I hear them striking with their axes harder and harder, and it weakens me each blow they give.
Heitaro awoke his child just as Higo disappeared, wondering to himself if it were not a dream. No : it was no dream. Chiyodo, awaking, stretched his arms in the direction his mother had gone, crying bitterly and imploring her to come back.
“My darling child,”said Heitaro, “she has gone. She cannot come back. Come, let us dress, and go and see her funeral. Your mother was the spirit of the Great Willow.”
A little later, at the break of day, Heitaro took Chiyodo by the hand and led him to the tree. On reaching it they found it down, and already lopped of its branches. The feelings of Heitaro may be well imagined.
Strange ! In spite of united efforts, the men were unable to move the stem a single inch towards the river, in which it was to be floated to Kyoto.
On seeing this, Heitaro addressed the men.
“My friends,” said he, “the dead trunk of the tree which you are trying to move contains the spirit of my wife. Perhaps, if you will allow my little son Chiyodo to help you, it will be more easy for you ; and he would like to help in showing his last respects to his mother.’
The woodcutters were fully agreeable, and, much to their astonishment, as Chiyodo came to the back end of the log and pushed it with his little hand, the timber glided easily towards the river, his father singing the while an “Uta.” There is a well-known song or ballad in the “Uta”style said to have sprung from this event; it is sung to the present day by men drawing heavy weights or doing hard labor:
Is it not sad to see the little fellow,
Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,
And is thus far budding well ?
Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.
The wagon could not be drawn when it came to the front of Heitaro’s house, so his little five-year-old boy Chiyodo was obliged to help, and they sang :—
Is it not sad to see the little fellow,
Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,
And is thus far budding well ?
Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.
There are many different versions of this story. This is one of the most detailed. Japanese folklore rarely end “happily ever after.” The stories capture the reality of intertwined happiness and sorrow. Even the closest lovers must part for a time when one of them dies. However, these stories aren’t pessimistic. Rather, they seek to teach appreciation. We appreciate what we have more when we know it must end.
Smith, Richard Gordon (1918) Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan.
Photographs are everywhere. Every cell phone has a camera stuffed into it. Selfies and photos in general are so ubiquitous that they often lack impact. Even the most stunning photos make us shrug and click on to the next website. But if we stop and consider photos, they are a marvel. Photography captures a moment in time. The moment may be contrived, posed, or spur-of-the-moment, but it is still a glimpse at a time period. It is a glimpse at a person long gone.
The number of photos floating around the Internet combines with our ever-onward rush to consume information. How often do you stop to contemplate a picture for more than a few seconds? I am guilty of rushing onward too.
Japanese woman wearing Western clothing c. 1900
Why is this woman wearing Western style clothing? What was her name? What was her favorite food? She was a predecessor to the moga of the 1920s. Moga is short for modan garu, or modern girl. She was a hip, liberated woman for her time. Moga typically wore one-piece dresses that ended at the knee, high-heels, and sheer stockings. A hat made of soft fabric accented her short hair styled after popular American film stars (Sato, 1993). Our lady has the hat, but her dress looks Victorian. We can only speculate about how she viewed herself. Many of these photographs are for postcards meant to be sold in the West. But they are still glimpses of people and periods lost to time.
Moga on the beach. 1920. Notice their Western-style swimsuits. These ladies were fashionable for their time and they threatened traditional womanhood in Japan.
A pair of sumo going through ritual movements for a Western audience (These postcards targeted Western visitors). A hand tinted photograph from 1865.
We can’t forget the people not seen in these photographs: the photographers. The names of photographers are sometimes as mysterious as the people depicted. What made the photographer set up this shot? What relationship did the photographer share with the people in the picture? We can rarely answer these questions.
Japanese mother with her sleeping child. c. 1865 hand-tinted.
These people are gone. These frozen moments tantalize. The toy cat on the right side of the photograph and the thick blankets surrounding the child speak of the mother’s love. The ink paintings in the background are lovely. What do they tell us about the family?
A lovely hand-tinted photograph of a woman washing her hair taken by Felix Beato. c.1863.
We happen to know who took these hand-colored photographs. Felix Beato, an Englishman, used glass plate negatives coated with egg whites. This technique allowed photographers to capture detail but at the cost of long exposures. It took 4 hours to make a photo. However, Beato figured out a way to reduce the exposure time to 4 seconds. He took photographs in Egypt, China, and many other locations. He lived in Yokohama (Nobuo, 1972).
A samurai in full armor, a relic of the past even when this photograph was taken.
We rush about both online and offline by our societies. We bounce to and fro, forgetting how to look deeply. Look at these photographs for several minutes. Look into the eyes of these people. Perhaps someday someone will look at photographs of you with the same questions you have. Who is this? What was their favorite food? Favorite color? What were they thinking? Why was the photograph taken?
Or perhaps they will only spend a few seconds glancing into your eyes before moving on without thinking of these questions.
We live in an exciting time. A few clicks pulls up hundreds of frozen memories, but appreciation for this remains low. It’s human nature to grow accustomed to the everyday. It takes effort to cultivate thankfulness and mindfulness. These photos of people long gone reach across time if we stop and listen. I find this exciting and humbling. Even contrived postcards offer a glimpse of a different era and way of thinking. Japan was opening to the world after a long period of isolation under the Tokugawa. These photos suggest anxiety and excitement, a curiosity for the new, and a desire to reach out to the West. For the Japanese at the time, the West was just as alien as Japan was to the West.
Edo period women
A Buddhist monk. c. 1870
A geisha poses for a postcard. Hard-tinted.
A Japanese mother with her child.
Nobuo, I. (1972). BEATO IN JAPAN. Image, 15(3), 10-11.
Sato, B. (1993). The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles During the 1920s. Gender & History, 5 (3). 363-381.
You probably expect me to talk about Japan’s infamous panty vending machines. Alright, alright. I will, but there is more to the story. Did you know vending machines were once considered a threat to Japanese tradition? Do you know why Japan historically has the densest concentration of vending machines in the world?
Beyond panties and bras, vending machines in Japan dispense a staggering variety of products: frozen beef, hamburgers, soft drinks, eggs, cigarettes, alcohol, ice cream, soup, porn, towels, flowers, bus tickets, train tickets, toys, batteries, coffee, DVDs, and even dates…the kind that involves people, not the fruit.
Back in 1993, there were 50 machines in every square kilometer (Minshall, 1993). In 1998, Japan had over 5.4 million vending machines (Mak, 1998).
Who invented the first vending machine is up for debate. In 1867, the German Carl Ade is believed to claim the first patent. But in 1888, Yoshiichi Tawaraya was said to produce the first automatic vending machine (Minshall, 1993). In either case, Japan took the idea and ran with it.
Why Were Vending Machines so Popular in Japan?
Japan loved vending machines for many reasons. Convenience dominates these reasons. Etiquette rules Japanese society. Many people get tired of obligated small talk and social requirements. Vending machines let you avoid that.
“Because of traditional attitudes it can be psychologically awkward to walk into a shop to buy something small, like a pack of cigarettes, and just leave.” (Sterngold, 1992)
Japanese businesses have a reputation for lavishing attention on customers and smothering them with personal service. Small neighborhood shops thrived because they provided intimacy and trust people once demanded (Sterngold, 1992). But over time, this changed. The increasing pace of life drove people toward the immediacy of vending machines. The Japanese tradition of elaborate courtesies smashed against a world that doesn’t have time for them. Vending machines, at first, appeared to be another threat to tradition. They allowed people to avoid traditional interactions with their rituals. But they can also be seen as a middle ground between retaining traditional social etiquette and throwing it away. They carve out a middle ground.
Busy people can use them instead of pressuring the culture to drop traditional etiquette. Busyness can’t be underestimated as a changing force. Japanese workers put in long hours, often off the clock. Vending machines allow people to circumvent cultural expectations in other ways too. They help people avoid social embarrassment associated with buying certain products. For example, in the 1990s flower machines allowed young men to avoid the embarrassment of admitting to shopkeepers they were buying a nice gift for a sweetheart. Such a gesture of affection was unusual in Japan for the time and rather embarrassing (Sterngold, 1992).
Vending machines soon developed a wide variety of products to accommodate long work hours and avoid the embarrassment of trying to placate a wife a salary-man rarely sees. Even better for the customer, prices between different machines remained the same. On the business side, vending machines save on overhead. Land and labor in Japan cost a bundle. Vending machines produce more revenue for each square meter of space compared to a retail store (Mak, 1998). Competition zeroes in on location. Because product prices remain the same, vendors seek the best locations for their product selection. Volume creates profit, so the best locations in the busiest areas yield the best profit. Vending machines encourage impulse buying and immediate need. That is why underwear machines are found in saunas (Sterngold, 1992).
Japan’s low crime rate helps. Businesses can place machines all over and not worry about vandalism (Mak, 1998). Here in the US, we place vending machines in front of established businesses because of the real threat of vandalism. You will rarely see a vending machine standing alone in a street. In Japan, vending machines appear nearly anywhere.Vendors need to place their machines where the consumers need them to maximize impulse buying. Even if this means the machine stands along on a hiking path in the middle of a forest (selling insect repellent, of course). Access to electricity limits placement more than anything.
Finally, vending machines have return policies. People can fill out a form (paper back in the day) if a machine ate your money, and the product was delivered to you (Minshall 1993).
Weird Vending Machines
Here’s the part you were waiting for! Because vending machines sell such a wide range of products, you will get a few strange varieties.
Back in the 90’s vending machines peddled dates for those who lack time to meet people. Remember, this was before online dating. Japanese men would submit an application with a photo including information about their blood types, height and weight, astrological sign, and job. Guys paid $40 to make 30 copies of their forms destined to be randomly placed in 30 “Happy Guy” vending machines around Tokyo. Women put in $2 to receive the info (Thornton, 1992).
In 2013, a bra vending machine debuted, but it sold few. The bras it sold cost 3,000 yen — about $30.
Used Panty Vending Machines
They kinda look like Pokeballs. Gotta catch them all?
Vending machines that sell underwear worn by teens are one of those stories that refuses to die. These machines did exist in Tokyo, but they were never a common way of buying such (Waterstreet, 2014). The whole thing started back in the 1990s during a teen school-girl craze that swept through parts of Japan. It rode on the waves of the exploding j-pop idol movement. Worn school uniforms and underwear were sold in specialty adult stores (Ashcraft, 2012). School girls would sell their clothes to these shops. This didn’t last long. Japan’s health departments cracked down, and the practice became illegal. But new underwear can still be sold.
As you’ve seen, the 1990s were something of a golden age for vending machines. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind some Japanese style vending machines here in the States. No, I don’t mean the panty-machines. The ability to buy little things like batteries and other odds without fighting checkout lines would be great! But the US has a lot more theft and vandalism than Japan, so I don’t see this ever happening. What would you like to see in a vending machine?